How Do You Measure Your Success?

Have you done what you set out to do? No, really. Have you?

If what you set out to do was to top the NYT bestseller list for six months, chances are, you’ve failed. If it was to have your brilliant work optioned AND green-lighted for a major motion picture… oops. Failure. Short-listed for the Pulitzer? No? Please step out of the arena.

Bob Dylan wrote, “She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.”

In each case above, the goal almost guarantees failure. So back up, bud.

Didn’t you set out to write, if you’re a writer? Didn’t you begin by learning basics of the craft? Did you do that? You did, didn’t you? Can you write a decent sentence? Do you know the basic rules of grammar? Not perfection. No one, hopefully, gets to a place where there’s nothing more they can learn. So, did you get all that under your belt? Well, good on ya. Success.

Did you actually complete the short story you started? Success.

Did you revise it and hone it and make it better? Yay for you. Yes.

Did you show it to someone other than your mother/wife/husband/dog? A crit partner, beta reader? Yeah, now you’re humming along. That’s brave. That’s success.

Did you write another? Major success. It’s better than the last one, too, isn’t it? Check.

Did you set out to write a novel and actually begin it? Did you outline the whole thing? Did you just grab what felt like a good idea and jump off the cliff with it? Doesn’t matter how you begin, only that you did begin. Did you? That’s huge.

What’s even more huge? Finding your way all the way down the road you set in front of yourself. Getting to the end. It never happens without detours, unexpected twists, roadblocks, delays, traffic jams, and, thankfully, stretches of sweet clear speeding along. But did you get to the end? High five. Champagne.

Of course, since you’re a writer, you know it isn’t finished. It needs revision, editing, and that will, no doubt, require several passes. But you did it, didn’t you? It may not be perfect. I don’t think any artists ever believes her work is perfect. But did you rework it, elicit other eyes, consider critiques, and revise? And revise again? And get brave enough to let it go?

Every day we have successes, but instead of enjoying them and wallowing a moment in the warm light of gratification, we look ahead at the bigger things, too often things we may never attain, and we miss the fact that we are doing something we love, step by step.

Are you a writer, and are you writing? Are you doing something that (when you’re momentarily done teeth-gnashing) makes you happy, deep inside? Do you know what courage that takes and how fortunate you are to be creating worlds and people to fill them?

Sure, landing an agent, if that’s the route you choose, will be great. Or a publishing deal with an indy publisher. Or a 3-book deal. And, yeah, the Pulitzer. Hell, why not the Nobel? But, just on the very slight off-chance that those don’t happen…

Look at what you have done, what you have accomplished. What you are accomplishing every day. I’d call that success, wouldn’t you?

Lift a glass! Celebrate your successes. Stop by and tell me what you think.

Now get back to work.

A Creative Hunger

Greetings, readers. Today I’m going to take you down the tunnel of a thought experiment that applies to all writers, even those folks over in contemporary fiction who remain incredibly sane and outstandingly plain.

There are pages published and digitalized on the idea of a creative hunger, of the itch to write when you’ve gone too long without it. You have to interact with the real world and go people watching and cultivate your mind’s garden, etc., all that good stuff. But how do you satisfy the hunger for the weird, the strange, the supernatural when your life does not discreetly have those elements in it?

A writer takes a new job, packing their schedule from morning to late afternoon of sitting at a desk in an office, surrounded by paperwork and paperclips and paper airplanes he imagines throwing to their boss’ office. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy. It is steady, secure, mundane work, that has them swinging between an optimistic Mad (Wo)man and the drones from Office Space.

Why did the writer take this job? And to expand the question, why do we inject our lives with not just the ordinary, but the mundane?

Is it because we need money to eat and keep the lights on and for gas? God, no. The writer does this– we do this– because we hunger. Let us go further and say the writer doesn’t have writer’s block. S/he is perfectly content with the words they are able to hammer out when they get home, and their creative output before taking the job was satisfactory.

The short, easy answer is to say that Stephen King was struck when he was out walking. Chaos and destruction did not find him at home as it did to Will Ferrell’s character in Stranger Than Fiction (highly recommended). He was out in the world, doing that whole ‘living’ thing. It was his regular exercise. But that’s the easy answer, so I’ll go into detail.

You’ll never be struck by anything- inspiration, the solution to that latest itch, a minivian– if you aren’t out there. But the writer sits at a desk and works all day because s/he knows of the hunger. The hunger will find them easily if s/he starts walking and living and people watching, things s/he (maybe) actually wants to do.

But to be a prisoner of the paycheck, to be a drone of the office where you are only partially permitted your mind? That is what the hunger truly is. Not fresh air or social interactions or the “weekend” drink- that’s what the hunger needs. What the hunger is, is that creative energy you find in dark places, when all other lights go out. (Yes I just hammered a Pirates of the Caribbean paraphrasing with a LOTR quote; I do not apologize).

The creative hunger is a muscle that develops when your body and mind are doing all those uncreative thing. It’s not just the spark that makes you want to carry a notebook everywhere, that’s not so spectacular. This hunger is something that must be satisfied, a void that must be filled. But that void needs to be knotted up with nowhere to go, with nothing to do but grow.

For some people, finding that hunger is going to be as simple as having a full-time job and being, always, too exhausted to write, at which point starvation will call upon them and they will, as every expert advisor gives, Make time to write. For others, the hunger bleeds into you and becomes such a part of you that even as that office drone, you are a writer.

Ultimately, and the reason I write this article, I call your attention to the hunger because it’s the writer part of you, no matter your genre, that will find you if you let it, if you stop looking for it and let it fester and gnaw and starve, until that day you master it, learn to feed it, and it becomes all that you are.

Adding the Familiar

If it’s one thing Spec Fic writers know how to do, it’s research. Half the time I believe many could CLEP out of most of the courses in colleges throughout the country with the amount of science, history, mythology, and psychology we study, cross check references, and verify.

We find the tiny details to use in our storytelling, to twist, turn, reverse, and basically create something new out of the old.

Over the past few months, I’ve seen an issue becoming more than just a once in hundred manuscripts. The authors used unfamiliar foundations for their stories. And it can throw a reader completely out of the world they created.

Yes, there are always exceptions. And sometimes you have use them.

The myth red cars receive more tickets than any other color. I lost the link to the police officer, and mathematician, who stated that it would require every red car to receive twelve tickets per day for that to be true. He poured through statistics, used a program to compile every ticket given in the US for a five year period, color of the car, etc. His findings? White is the most ticketed color of any make, model or year. Statistically it makes sense – white is the most common color. But you can’t tell that to the world in general, they will argue that their cousin’s best friend’s sister owned a red BMW and was ticketed so often she lost her license. Never mind she drove 90 in a 65 every day to work.

What I’m driving at is the need to use the familiar. I used a unicorn in a recent MS. Granted it talked, was the size of a Great Dane, released flatulence in the form of rainbows and its horse apples turned out to be pure gold. Oh, he’s a carnivore. But I also kept to the familiar – white coat, cloven hooves, dainty, blue eyes, a sparse mane and tail.

Familiar landscapes, weapons, and creatures easily imagined. Then the author veers off the familiar and uses little known theories of science, and tosses the reader on their keister, wondering what happened.

Science is moving forward at a breakneck pace. At times it can be very hard to keep up. Now imagine how it is for the general population. Granted, most hard SF readers know as much about the latest scientific developments as the scientists who discover them. But in general, most know only what is published through various news sites, science shows, books, etc. They don’t know about the latest developments of the Higgs-Boson theory, the many different string theories, heavy gravity and how it relates to string theory, the new body parts recently discovered, the cures for cancer that are currently in testing, recent discoveries in the world of veterinary medicine, the DNA found in several fossilized animals and how they believe it can be cloned, or how dragons became so popular with various unrelated cultures throughout the world.

Now to circle back. I had three hard SF books cross my desk in the past month. The premises were great, the writing outstanding, and they weren’t rewrites of Star Trek/Wars. Of the three, two used unfamiliar foundation for their science. It required two hours of intensive research to check their facts. What? It’s part of my job. But the point is, what they used was so unfamiliar, not even published yet, and tossed me out of their work – because it was unbelievable. I had to call my cousin in Kuaui, an astrophysicist, and verify what I found. The author had the foundation information correct. Although it surprised my cousin the author found the ongoing research.

This isn’t the 60’s and Gene Roddenberry’s world any longer. Our readers are savvier, more up to date on scientific developments in general, less likely to believe, and harder to keep inside the worlds/realities we create. Our biggest hurdle is convincing them that yes, an intergalactic war will happen, or in an alternate universe, people still fight with swords, or that unicorns can show up during Mardi Gras and change your entire outlook on life.

Giving them a little bit of the familiar helps to suspend their belief and reading to the very last page.

The Weight

The one piece of advice you’ll find from successful authors is: Read. It’s one of the surprisingly few agreed-upon mantras; you gotta read as much as you can.

This always intimidated me because a) I do not read very fast and b) all these successful authors always talk about how they “devoured every book they could get their hands on”. That wasn’t me, and I think that anxiety can carry over to today’s spec fic writer when it comes to keeping up on your own genre.

I picked up How to Write Tales of Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, partially because it’s such an old text and I was curious. While Bradbury’s “Thing at the Top of the Stairs” is always good, many of the articles collected are showing their age.

Today’s writers know they live in a constantly shifting market. Genres are visiting one another more often these days. They’re interbreeding and creating adorable little monstrosities with Fantasy’s face but obviously Horror’s eye color. We are enjoying what I would call an unprecedented mixture of genre, where the ghost of the horror story can freely walk into urban fantasy or even sci-fi and feel welcome.

And then, of course, it’s that much harder to stay sharp, stay relevant. What’s the best balance for all the weight? For all the reading you must have to do? This has been one of my largest personal demons in my effort to commit myself to writing, and I imagine other people struggle with it, too.

I couldn’t imagine having full-time college, a full-time job, and still manage to read dozens of blogs every morning, get my hands on new SF/F anthologies, read up on the new trends in spec fic, and still scratch out some time to pen words down. Never mind dealing with other creative people!

But that’s okay. It’s a process. Especially for science fiction in fantasy, I think, the growth, the gestation period, is crucial. So I’ll share the concept that allowed me to alleviate the stress that came from the inability to devour all the books.*

When I was in therapy in my younger days, I told my psychologist I wanted to be a writer, and he was practically delighted, because he said, and this sticks with me every time I sit down at my keyboard: “Writers are singularly gifted in that they draw from everything, all the time, to create entirely new things that only they can produce.”

It really blew my mind. I still wonder if he was waiting for a patient of his to be a writer so he could bust that one out. Look at it; it’s a lovely sliver of dialogue. Savor it, digest it, print it, pin it, frame it, you’re welcome. But, yeah, I think it’s advice worth following.

If you feel like the Weight is an alien concept to you, or you are only worrying about all you need to read because I just mentioned it now (sorry!), then relax. Finding your pace as a reader will help you forge your path as a writer. Do you have to put the time in? Absolutely. Do you have to break your comfort zone and do research and make the time to write? Yup.

But you still have a pace, and you still have that singular gift of a unique voice. One that no one else has heard before, that no one will hear after you. Sure, when you start out it may sound like a mod of your favorite authors, but keep at it.

The voice of the speculative fiction author is one that uses comfortable words and a familiar hand to bring us to exhilarating, mystical, and quite often terrifying new places. And that’s all kinds o’ fantastic.

*sidenote: I would still take the superpower of being able to read a book by touching its cover. Would totally be the coolest thing in the world.

 

Don’t Forget To Laugh

I deserve a great big smack. Yup, I forgot my 8th deadline. In my defense…wait, I’m not sure I have one. Can I just apologize?!

I don't know what happened...

I don’t know what happened…

I decided last month I would write about the thing we often forget when immersed in writing – our sense of humor. I can attest to the great amount of laughs we all imbibe in. Yet it isn’t talked about often enough, in my not so humble opinion. I want people to remember to smile – even as we get hit with “tough love” critiques, rejections and the inevitable “What on earth were you thinking in chapter X?”  Maybe that is just me.

Not completely, anyway.

Not completely, anyway.

So many thing about writing just plain hurts. But if you look, you’ll see plenty of laughs. Especially at yourself. For example, one writer talked about sending a query to an agent with “Dear Agent.”  *cough* Yeah, I did that too. Oops. Needless to day, I had a rejection email.

The query trenches, or preparing to self publish, is enough to test a writer’s dignity, skin thickness, and make them wonder if they truly have enough talent.

I'd say this hit the shark on the nose...

I’d say this hit the shark on the nose…

It’s during this time many show their humor. Whether passing around virtual cups of caffeine, wine, chunks of chocolate or rashers of bacon, humor is used to cheer on the writer-ly community. And it can be a sanity saver. I send emails of thank yous, talk to several writers who gently keep me off the ledge, and make jokes at my own expense to keep schlepping forward. We chose a hard road to travel. No matter how you publish, working towards the end imagined, getting smacked down is going to happen – and often. Getting back up can be an accomplishment in, and of, itself.

The smack down comes from everywhere...

The smack down comes from everywhere…

And now you know my secret. Laughing. Find a reason, no matter how hard I fell, to let others giggle, guffaw, chortle or snicker. Granted it might be because I did a carpet slide into the closet trying to get out of bed, klutzing my way into the dolphin pool at Sea World, forgetting my name when talking to someone I admire, the self – V8 smack for stupidity when sending out a query, or laughing at my rough drafts – it’s worth it.

hamster checkmate

Lesson? Don’t let the mistakes get you down, or the rejections, or the long days and longer nights. We are here to help you smile again.

live long

Social Networking: CAVEAT SCRIPTOR

Proceed with caution.

Much has been written on the effective use of social media, especially for authors. We hear the importance of building platform, and several sites are devoted to some of the most important aspects of using social media. Mostly, they focus on writing effective copy, branding one’s self, and building your “tribe.” I won’t go over those with different wording on the same subjects, and since I don’t Tweet and haven’t posted to my own blog since October, I’m not so super-qualified to write on those subjects.

I do want to discuss what I’ve come to discover is, to me, one of the most important aspects of social networking, specifically Facebook, since it’s where I spend most of my online social time.

I have many online “friends” from among our AQC writer compatriots. We chat rarely but often comment on or “like” shares and posts. We get to know each other’s likes and dislikes. A most important step in finding your “tribe.”

Why?

We become personally invested in one another. Even an occasional response to a comment is a personal connection. Every source I’ve read says that developing a personal bond, or link, or whatever you want to call it, with your friends or followers is the most important thing you can do toward finding and developing your tribe. People need to care about you to care about your product.

I can say for sure that those are the people whose posts I will read, and when they post that their book is available, I’ll grab it for my “stack” of Kindle reading.

But there is an opposite of that and we can easily sabotage ourselves.

Many authors, since that’s primarily our group of interest, have both personal pages and author pages. Their personal pages tend to be where they (we) show their interests, social and, sometimes, political leanings. Author pages, on the other hand, tend to be, in many cases, mostly self-promotion.

If there is nothing coming from that author but “here’s my book,” “here’s my book cover,” “here’s how to win a free ARC of my book,” and, oh yeah, “here’s another book you might like,” one, at least this one, becomes very quickly disinterested.

You may not want to share with online acquaintances the same personal info you share with family and close personal friends. Honestly, I’m not in love with reading where you have breakfast or that your kid finally learned to poop in the toilet (true post.) But, still, even if I overdose on funny cat/dog memes or love/hate political memes, I still feel more invested personally in those authors, maybe because of their wicked sense of humor or whatever, and consequently, I want to support them because they’ve personally interacted with me.

Isn’t that why we’re repeatedly told to personally reply to comments made to things we post?

Personal connection.

And there’s the rub. A tenet of effective social networking is not to pitch one’s self or one’s book or blog tour constantly. It may seem professional to only post things pertinent to your work, but, there’s no personal connection in that, and therefore, no feeling of belonging to that person’s “tribe.”

You can certainly refuse a friend request and refer someone to only Like and Follow your author page, but you are likely losing that person as a tribe member. If the only posts I see from a particular author are self-promotion, I soon pass right on by them.

I don’t pass by those fellow travelers with whom I share even a modicum of rapport. Because we have exchange on a personal level, I will always go to their author pages when they post from there.

But when all I see from an author is self-promotion, if that author doesn’t want to be a “friend” and let me see who they are, their likes, dislikes, random silly comments and such, then I’m not invested, and I don’t bother.

We know that a simple act of unfriending someone can have negative repercussions. (Although there are trolls, certainly, who deserve not just being unfriended, but having their heads held in a toilet.) We don’t need to friend everyone on the Interwebs. I’m only suggesting that, when deciding whom to friend and whom to refuse, we proceed with caution.

If you decide to refuse a friend request but want that person to follow your author’s page, and that page is only about your book, its cover, its pub date, etc, and maybe some friends’ books promotion, you’ve chosen not to allow that person to be part of your tribe.

That’s not how to build an audience, and what is platform but audience?

And when it comes to buying and helping to promote someone else’s book, whose are you going to buy?

I’d put my money on the one by the person you feel you know, with whom you’ve had some personal exchange. You may not even particularly love their genre, but you feel connected to them, so you’ll shell out that $2.99 and put in on your e-reader. Right?

I bet so.

I’d love to hear what you think in that regard.

When Characters Speak

‘You mean that thing called dialogue?’ Nope! Not this time.

One of the earliest– and most confusing– pieces of advice I was given about writing was, “Listen to your characters.” My view of the craft was at such a meta point that this idea was barely fathomable to me. I could maybe understand it, sure, but it seemed either too figurative to be helpful, or just straight-up counterintuitive.

Worldbuilding and consistency are what give your characters a real voice. You don’t have to go full-tilt Tolkien or even full-tilt Rothfuss to get this voice, but it helps. When you as the author have an idea of geography, technology/magic/religion, some sociocultural quirks, you’re establishing an identity.

This identity, then, gives voice to your characters, and you have to listen to them.

Even when I started writing I didn’t feel like I could “hear” them. I was still in control, guiding the story and directing the plot just how I wanted it. Sure, I was discovering it (as opposed to outlining everything), and that’s a fun creative process. But I was still holding the strings.

So what does it mean? How do you listen to the people you want someone else to care about?

Part of it is realism; addressing all the concerns, being aware of the questions your reader will have.

It’s being aware of when your characters say, “Why can’t we just do X to solve this plot issue?” A firm grasp of the situation, and a solid, realistic portrayal of whatever your conflict is, will lead you to some situations where your characters will straight-up ask you the simplest, most direct questions.

And the only response would be, “Well… you could.” And then there’s no conflict.

But you also listen to them to avoid falling into the trap of over-written dialogue. The biggest examples of this can be found in movies. Characters speak for the sole purpose of setting up a dramatic line (usually in the form of “Then what are these things?”). Christopher Nolan is currently my favorite director, but he’s guilty of this a lot. The character drops out of their three dimensional space and becomes a flat rebounding board for someone else– typically the hero– to say something cool and succinct.

It might work, and it gives the narrative that “punch”, but when you’re really listening to your characters’ needs and concerns, you start to hear different dialogue. You hear something more natural.

We know that real life speak, perfectly transcribed, isn’t real dialogue. There’s fiction dialogue, and it’s its own ballgame. Making it work and making it sound natural is tricky. But, if you can listen to your characters, the benefit is that you get that perfect middle ground between ‘Fiction Dialogue’ and ‘What a real person would actually say’.

But tapping into character– the most important element for making your story interesting in real– will allow you to hear them. And if you listen, the other elements fall into place.